Parents of children with disabilities urged the federal Department of Education to preserve their rights, during the first public hearing held to gather comment on the recent reauthorization of the nation’s main special education law.
The department is drafting regulations for the revised Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, signed by President Bush in December. The IDEA governs the education of more than 6.5 million children nationwide.
More than 40 speakers addressed a panel of three department officials here during the Jan. 28 hearing at the University of Delaware, the first of seven such sessions to be held around the country by Feb. 24.
Troy R. Justesen, the acting deputy assistant secretary for the Education Department’s office of special education and rehabilitative services, explained that these early meetings are intended to guide the department as it works on the regulations. The public will have another opportunity to comment when the draft regulations are released, he said.
Many speakers here said they were concerned about some provisions in the reauthorized law that are intended to reduce paperwork and lawsuits, particularly a 15-state pilot program that will allow districts to develop individualized education plans, or IEPs, for students every three years instead of annually. Parents said they feared the lengthy gap between formal meetings could erode their ability to monitor their children’s school progress.
Artie Kempner, the president of the Autism Society of Delaware and a parent of a child with autism, said three years between evaluations is a long time in the life of a young child, or even an older one.
“We do not want to see the high standards that we’re used to watered down for the sake of less paperwork,” he said. “These kids are already severely challenged; their families are challenged. Three years, that’s going to be a problem.”
Other parents were concerned that the revised IDEA shifts more burdens to parents who may already be unsure of their rights.
“In a lot of places you have to request things,” said Kathie Cherry, a Delaware parent of a 16-year-old with autism. “We need to ensure that the schools and the school districts are making this information [on the IDEA] available.”
Marie-Ann Aghadazian, the executive director of the Parent Information Center of Delaware, which provides support to families of children with special needs, said the revised law gives districts “even more of an upper hand than before.”
Other provisions in the revised law are intended to reduce paperwork or lawsuits. The new IDEA requires mandatory mediation sessions before a parent may challenge a school’s educational plan in a more formal due-process hearing.
Congress also eliminated a requirement under the previous version of the law that all members of an IEP team be present at a student’s hearing. Under the revised law, a team member can be excused if the parent agrees, or if the meeting doesn’t relate to that person’s area of expertise. Some parents said last week that excusing members of the team may halt the exchange of ideas that can help a child.
Not all the speakers were against the changes. Joseph A. Pika, the president of the Delaware state board of education, said that he hoped his state would be selected to pilot several procedures aimed at saving time and paperwork.
“Any time we can find for professionals to spend more time with their students and less time as clerks can only benefit that student,” Mr. Pika said.
And Beverly Correlle, a lobbyist with the Delaware State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said that the regulations should focus on “student needs, not just collecting data for the sake of collecting.”
A draft of the proposed IDEA regulations is scheduled to be released in May, Mr. Justesen said, with a goal having the regulations completed by early next year, he said.
If the department holds to that schedule, the regulations would be in place far sooner than they were for the previous edition of the IDEA, which was approved in 1997. After that reauthorization, it took more than two years for the department to adopt final regulations. Congress has pushed for the department to move faster, Mr. Justesen said.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Hearing Offers Range of Views on IDEA Regulations